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Friday, June 14, 2024
The Observer

Where is the talk about sexual violence?

Last week, the student government at Notre Dame held its third (that I know of) Sexual Violence Prayer Service of the academic year. The service is a time of lament and prayer for those within our community who have been affected by sexual violence; it is also a time of corporate repentance. I attended one of these in the fall, and I attended the one last week. Both times, maybe 30 people came. Where was everyone else?

Changes to Notre Dame’s alcohol policies reliably produce protests. I remember the outcry in 2005 when hard alcohol was banned from the dorms; and I’ve read in Notre Dame Magazine about the marches on the Dome — 1,500 strong one day, and more the following week — when the 1984 report of the University Committee on the Responsible Use of Alcohol recommended banning the consumption of alcohol in pubic places, except at tailgate parties. Only about 60 or fewer people participated in each of the two protests over sexual violence held by the “I’m Someone” group last Fall.

A little over a decade ago, it was impossible to miss the campus-wide conversation about the changes to the alcohol policy. By contrast, I am embarrassed to admit that I didn’t even know about the existence of the "I’m Someone" group or their protests until a friend of mine elsewhere called my attention to them.

But perhaps I am not wholly to blame. Fox 28 asked permission to cover their first protest — a silent march to the stadium behind the band before one of the football games — but were denied. Fox 28 also reports that, for the second protest, our administration asked "I’m Someone" to refrain from marching so as not to interfere with the band. Small wonder, then, that some of us missed the protests entirely.

Instead of silencing the protests and avoiding the prayer services, shouldn’t faculty and administrators at Notre Dame be joining in with them to signal to our student-survivors that we care about what they have suffered, and to insist that Notre Dame become a leader among universities working to end sexual violence on their campuses? Shouldn’t the prayer services themselves be just the beginning of our formal communal response to reports of sexual violence on campus instead of (as they seem to be) the beginning and the end?

The service last week was held in the wake of a sexual assault that occurred off campus earlier this month. This month also saw a press release (posted at about two student survivors who “are ready to speak out about the Title IX complaints they filed against University of Notre Dame for failing to address a repeat perpetrator who reportedly threatened, sexually harassed, physically assaulted and/or sexually assaulted approximately seven Notre Dame and St. Mary’s College students while on campus.” Last year, Notre Dame was prominently featured in the documentary, "The Hunting Ground," which dealt with a variety of problems related to sexual assault and the treatment of victims by administrators and peers on college campuses. In 2014, according to the most recently available Clery report, 15 rapes were reported as having occurred on Notre Dame campus property, 14 of those in residence halls; and, of course, those are just the ones that were reported. We as a community have much to lament, much to repent from, much for which to pray.

But our conversation on these topics shouldn’t only be directed toward God. We should be having more conversations with one another, and we should be doing so in an ongoing way for as long as we continue to have this problem on campus. Instead of silencing the protests, we should be encouraging them. As the speaker at last week’s prayer service said, one case of sexual violence is too many. The nation’s premier Catholic university should point the way to solving the problems highlighted in "The Hunting Ground"; we should never have found ourselves listed among the “problem cases.” Now that we have found ourselves on that list, we should together move to become foremost among those university communities that are taking strong, positive steps toward putting an end to sexual violence in their midst, reliably lending support to victims and instituting just and effective procedures for addressing violations.

Over a tenth of the University population came out in 1984 to show their opposition to recommended changes in the alcohol policy. What kind of message could be sent to survivors if even half that number were to participate in one of the prayer services, voicing our corporate sorrow over the fact that such things happen in our midst and repenting together of whatever ways in which we have been complicit? What kind of message could be sent if such numbers among us would take their stand (wherever they are allowed to stand) with “I’m Someone,” or engage in some kind of communal discussion of how we can work together to prevent sexual violence at Notre Dame? What kind of message could be sent if Notre Dame faculty and administrators would join in these activities, working and praying together so that everyone can enjoy the right to live and move within our community free from the threat of sexual violence? What kind of message is sent when none of this happens?

Michael Rea professor of philosophy

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.